As we get ready to set up our picnic table spread this Fourth of July, we couldn’t help but wonder about the history behind one of summer’s most iconic dishes: potato salad. And so we did a little digging and discovered that there’s quite the storied history behind the ultimate American side.
Although potato salad has become as synonymous with America as apple pie, it was originally a European creation. Potato salad was first concocted by Spanish explorers after arriving in Europe from the New World in the 16th century. The first potato salads were normally cooked and/or dressed with vinegar or wine in contrast to their modern American counterparts, which are traditionally slathered in creamy mayonnaise.
There is still a level of mystery surrounding who made popular the mayo-based potato salad that is served nationwide at Fourth of July barbecues, beach bonfires and backyard bashes. German immigrants brought a recipe to America in the mid-19th century for the most immediate ancestor of the mayo-slicked salad (made with bacon, onion and vinegar), but mayonnaise itself was developed by the French and was not available in America until the early 1900s. And it especially did not become popular in salads until eponymous mayonnaise brands, such as Hellmann’s and Miracle Whip, emerged in the mid-20th century.
Aligning all of these facts, we started to wonder if perhaps the mysterious origin behind the dish could be tied to Richard Hellmann, founder of Hellmann’s Mayonnaise. Mr. Hellmann himself could very well have introduced mayo-based potato salad to the American masses in order to market his condiment. An immigrant from Northern Germany, Hellmann opened a delicatessen in New York City in 1905 where he served various salads made with his wife’s recipe for mayonnaise. Perhaps this is when potato salad officially went mainstream.
Regardless of who brought potato salad into the national spotlight, it certainly can’t be claimed as a 100 percent American creation. From a French-style salad made with Dijon mustard, to an Asian-inspired riff made with sesame oil and soy sauce, the staple side can take on flavors from across the culinary globe. So as you set the table for your ultimate Fourth of July bash, take a second to reflect on the hearty history and diversity of this almost all-American side.